Does Apple build in obsolescence?

Apple's new laptop can't be repaired by users. But does anyone care?

Apple's new MacBook Pro has been criticised by the do-it-yourself repair company iFixit for being the least repairable laptop in the company's history. They gave it a 1/10 for repairability, highlighting the fact that the RAM is soldered into the motherboard, the battery is glued to the frame, and the screen is bonded to the glass, so that the entire upper lid needs to be replaced if it gets scratched.

Felix Salmon declared that this was part of Apple's "strategy of built-in obsolescence", writing:

Apple’s post-purchase revenue from every one of these new laptops that it sells will be significantly higher than what it’s seeing right now on the MacBook Pro line. . .

Apple Computer became Apple Inc back in 2007, and the overwhelming majority of its half-trillion-dollar market cap has absolutely nothing to do with revenues from selling laptops or desktops. The real money, it turns out, is in flows rather than stocks: the income stream from selling songs and apps, or from a cellphone contract, is much more valuable than a one-off computer purchase.

And it seems to me that with this latest model, Apple is trying to turn its computers into a flow product, too. It’s a beautiful shiny object — but it has much more built-in obsolescence than anything the Pro line has ever had in the past. And the more frequently Apple can persuade its customers to upgrade or replace their computers, the more its Mac operation will be worth. You might adore that Retina display now. But I suspect you’ll be replacing it sooner than you might think.

Some of what Salmon writes is just wrong. The "real money" for Apple has never been in selling songs and apps. The app store paid out $700m to developers in the fourth quarter of 2011, which, with the company's 70:30 split, means they grossed just $300m in that quarter. The company's overall revenue for that quarter was $28.3bn, and it's profit was $6.62bn; well over 20 times what it grossed from the app store. And that $300m doesn't take into account the cost of running the damn thing. Add it all together, and the situation is unlikely to have changed from February 2011, when Apple's then-CFO Peter Oppenheimer confirmed that "we run the App Store just a little over breakeven".

The fact is that Apple sells apps, and music, movies, TV shows and magazine subscriptions, in order to sell hardware. According to Horace Deidu, they make the vast majority of their income and profits from the iPhone, but the Mac and iPad divisions also both comfortably beat software and music sales. Apple has always made its money from selling big-ticket items at a healthy margin every other year or so. The real change for the company hasn't been that it's gone from hardware to software, but from computers to mp3 players and then smartphones.

With that in mind, it is of course still the case – and always has been – that Apple is interested in selling you computers more frequently. That's why they work so hard to cultivate a "gotta have it" air around all their new releases, and why they work hard at customer retention, to ensure that buying a new one is an experience you look back on fondly. But to make the leap from that to "Apple designs its computers to be un-upgradeable so that you buy new ones" misunderstands the company's aims and strengths.

A similar objection to the one Salmon is voicing now was made when the first iPhone came out, in 2007, with a battery sealed in the phone. And the response now is the same as it was then: how could they make what they made without those tradeoffs?

A sealed battery was the price for making a phone which competitors believed was literally impossible, and a bonded screen is the price for shipping a laptop with a resolution of 2880x1800 in a body smaller and lighter than the one which was being replaced.

The real question to be asked of Apple isn't whether they are going from a nice company which sells you infinitely upgradeable computers to a nasty one which deliberately kills yours after two years so you have to buy a new one. The question is whether Apple still views the sort of people who upgrade their computers as a viable market at all.

Salmon cites TUAW's Richard Gaywood, who wrote:

My last MacBook Pro saw a little over 2.5 years as my primary computer, and I would expect no less of any computer I was paying in excess of $2200/£1800 for. In that time, I upgraded the memory once, the hard drive three times, and replaced the battery once. None of these options would be available to me with a new MBPwRD.

Undoubtedly, Gaywood will find the switch in focus from repairability to thinness and lightness painful. But he is simply not the sort of customer Apple can afford to care about. I am hardly a technophobe, but my current MacBook pro has spent the last four and a half years as my primary computer, and in that time I have replaced the battery twice (once under warranty, and once not). That's it.

The cost to Apple of making its laptops black boxes is that the vanishingly small proportion of its customers who are "power users" get annoyed, and maybe some even switch to bulkier, more user-serviceable Windows or Linux machines; the advantage is that it can continue to justifiably claim to make the best computers in the business.

The inside of a MacBook Pro with retina display. Complicated. Photograph: iFixit.com

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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